Individual investors are growing increasingly nervous about the potential for a stock market crash. Higher volatility on Wall Street has roiled the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) and other major market benchmarks, and even though long-term growth prospects still look solid, many investors would prefer to have a short-term safe haven in mind if the long-awaited bear market actually happens.

Certain industries' stocks have tended to perform well even during previous market declines -- the companies in those sectors tend to pay higher-yielding dividends, and produce more secure cash flows that are less sensitive to cyclical declines. Below, I'll lay out three groups of stocks that have the potential to rise in a broader market downturn.

1. Companies that sell essential goods

Conservative investors have long gravitated toward the stocks of consumer goods companies. Their growth potential is limited, making them less attractive for those seeking the possibility of explosive share-price gains. But with mature, stable businesses, consumer goods stocks often have huge customer bases who will keep buying their products even during tough times. In addition, the cash flow that these businesses generate often lead them to pay high-yielding dividends, further cushioning the blow for investors during a market crash.

Consumer stocks won't always produce outright gains during the toughest markets, but they'll often offer much more modest losses. For example, Procter & Gamble makes some of the most popular consumer products in the world, including items that consumers desperately need for their everyday lives. During the last four months of 2008, when the S&P 500 was down 30%, Procter & Gamble limited its losses to 11%. That wealth preservation was extremely helpful for conservative investors. Companies like Monster Beverage and Molson Coors actually gained ground during that time period, showing that outright gains are possible. Moreover, stocks like ExxonMobil and Bristol-Myers Squibb, while not strictly being consumer stocks, saw gains in part because of ongoing consumer demand for gasoline and key medications.

Person in front of four trading monitors looking out windows at a crowded skyline.

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Companies that provide essential services

Similarly, there are many industries that have relatively constant demand regardless of what's happening to the stock market. For instance, people still need electricity, water, and heat for their homes, and utility stocks tend to do well during market downturns as investors value more highly their stability and generally above-average dividend yields.

Southern Company is one example of a utility that managed to gain ground during the market crash in late 2008. Other companies in the sector weren't able to overcome so much downward market pressure, but they generally did much better than the overall market.

3. Companies with businesses that run counter to the cause of the market crash

Finally, the best source of stock ideas to weather market downturns are tailored to the specific causes of the downturn in question. For example, financial stocks can often be a smart way to handle down markets, but not when the cause of the market crash is a collapse in the financial system.

During 2008 and 2009, the market rewarded anti-recessionary stocks that offered cash-starved customers good value. Prime examples were fast-food giant McDonald's and discount retailer Dollar Tree, both of which served more customers seeking less expensive ways to meet their essential needs. Interestingly, airline stocks also did well, because plunging energy costs made their operations far cheaper, outweighing the negative impact of slight declines in travel.

Future downturns require similar forethought to identify potential winners. Currently, investors who are worried about what a trade war might mean for the market might consider stocks of companies that do most of their business domestically and therefore aren't vulnerable to retaliatory tariffs. Fears of rising interest rates that could hurt rate-sensitive stocks might actually help financial companies with business that benefits from rate increases.

There's no perfect answer

Unfortunately, you'll never be able to be 100% certain that a stock you pick will provide complete protection against a future downturn. There's always a risk that the stock you pick will itself play a key role in causing that downturn to happen. However, by focusing on the most common causes of market crashes and identifying those stocks that are least hurt or even benefit from those causes, you'll improve your chances of finding winners in a tough market.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.